The last traditional speakers of Occitan?
While this project has focused on the ‘Occitania’ administrative region, the Occitan language is spoken well beyond its boundaries. Part of my fieldwork involved revisiting some of the Occitan-speaking districts of the Rhône-Alpes (now Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes) region. I focused on the Drôme area where I taught Occitan for 2 years and where I conducted a linguistic survey (together with Michel Bert) for the regional government in 2009. I want to ask here if we have finally, and irrevocably, reached the oft-predicted point where native speakers of Occitan are disappearing.
Back in 2009, we had found that the language was severely endangered, with few over the age of 60 able to speak Occitan (or Francoprovençal further north). The aim of the report was for the then socialist regional administration to engage in language planning. A change of regional administration meant that what had been started at that time was discontinued, and interest in the regional languages waned under the new right-wing administration.
It won’t come as a surprise that on my latest trip, in July 2019, I found that most of the speakers are now dead. I was back in the Drôme working both on this project and on a separate project on interspecies communication in a natural vineyard. In the village where I conduct fieldwork, along the busy road that links the Rhône Valley to Nyons, only a handful of speakers remain. The situation appears to be similar in all nearby villages. The youngest speakers are in their 90s, which places the end of language transmission in the early 1920s. Even reports that younger inhabitants might know Occitan proved largely unfounded. Most people who can display some knowledge are ‘rememberers’ (Bert & Grinevald’s (2011)terminology), who have heard the language used by elders. The last generation who spoke Occitan in daily life died in the 1960s or 1970s, leaving pockets of users in certain settings, on farms, inside houses, on certain market stalls.
Others learnt some Occitan while working in certain industries, specifically construction. This, however, appears to be mostly thanks to the fact that those workers (in the 1970s) were Italian. They came from Occitan-speaking areas, knew no French and little Italian, and so they would conduct their daily work in Occitan. The youngest speaker I met, Michel, is now 67, and his Occitan, while undoubtedly local, displayed many traits of Alpine Occitan. His Occitan, while mostly functional, was partly fossilised, in particular regarding conjugating verbs. His verbal morphology was at least partly from the Occitan valleys in Italy (e.g. eravafor èra, was). His feminine forms alternate between /a/ and /ə/, the former being typical of Italian varieties of Occitan, and the latter normal in the Southern Drôme area.
It was Michel who introduced me to René and his wife, Josette, both 96 (born 1923). Michel had assured me that both were fluent in what he called ‘patois’, and that the couple usually conversed in that language. I now doubt that this is true, at least as an everyday form of communication. René is clearly a first language user of Occitan, and he reverted to Occitan whenever the other participants let him talk (Marc, their son, and Michel). Josette spoke to me in Occitan at first, but resorted mostly to French throughout the hour we spent together. She told me that her parents would speak patois to everyone, but not to the children (i.e. not to her). She understood perfectly, and might be conversant when only with her husband, but didn’t feel confident enough to use it with us. She cited schools as the main reason to prevent children from speaking patois.
Both René and Josette describe a world where all interactions were conducted in patois until the previous generation died out, in the ’60s and ’70s. The world they depict is a pre-mechanised one. They remembered with glee the words and expressions used with animals – horses especially, who ‘didn’t speak French’. Josette remembers the switch from bicycles to mopeds (in the ’60s). This seems to have arrived together with the mechanisation of agriculture, but also with the end of previous patterns of worker circulation between the mountains and the plains, and more compulsory education. The end of a world that dated to pre-1914. While the First World War is often painted as a sharp break from the 19th century in many respects, the world from before lingered for decades. This is perhaps something which linguistic anthropologists working in Europe still fail to fully grasp.
The very fact that the old world took so long to vanish might help explain why René and Josette have no idea how the language was lost. According to them, it just vanished. It subsided along with a world of local alliances and interactional orders that involved animals and humans, a way of living involving polyculture rather than the monoculture that appeared in the 1940s. Where they used to live there were no vines; that’s all there is now.
Today, in the speech of 40-year-olds, many words remain, a good amount of expressions, especially among those who work in agriculture and in the vineyards. Those might still pepper their speech with Occitan words or expressions. Yet, the younger generation (especially under 30s) doesn’t speak Occitan and in many cases hasn’t even retained a regional accent. All in all, Occitan remains, but as a token. It is summoned by the over 60s to signal localness, it is mobilised in the form of words (zou mai, ‘let’s go’ for example). Some shops have their name in Occitan (‘La roundo paisano’, in Tulette), but in this case Occitan competes with Italian or Spanish names to index southernness.
In a future post, I will return to the point made earlier that the last generation of speakers failed to grasp how the language vanished. I am especially curious to understand why traditional speakers were never really convinced by a language advocacy discourse.
Grinevald, Colette, and Michel Bert (2011). Speakers and Communities. InThe Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages. Peter K Austin and Julia Sallabank (eds.), pp. 45–65. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.